Increasing Diversity of People and Ideas at the Media Lab Through MSRP
The MIT Media Lab is the kind of place you have to see (and feel and touch) to believe and understand. In my capacity as the Lab’s assistant director for diversity and inclusion, one of my highest priorities is to increase our reach and open the Lab up to students who may not have considered the Media Arts and Sciences program (MAS) before.
That’s why I was so excited to ramp up the Media Lab’s participation in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) this summer. MSRP brings undergraduates from schools across the country to MIT to prepare and excite them for the graduate school experience. The program seeks to provide underrepresented minorities with access to opportunities for research and discourse with STEM faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.
MSRP gives students who may have never even heard of our academic program the opportunity to feel us out and see if the Media Lab, and the MAS, are a good fit for them. It also gives the Lab community the chance to engage with students we would not otherwise know in person, with skills and ideas unique to their experiences. This could have a huge impact on our MAS admissions pool, with the potential to bring trusted, amazing researchers into our fold.
This challenging summer program demands a great deal from its participants, somewhat aiming to recreate the graduate school experience. It gives students a sense of whether an advanced degree is something they would want to pursue, and if so, if MIT (and in this case the Media Lab) is the right place for them. Taken a step further, by increasing the number of students the Lab hosts through MSRP, we are increasing the range of people who have access to (and ultimately interest in) the work that we do. This summer, the Media Lab hosted six MSRP interns, the most we have ever hosted at once, in four research groups: Biomechatronics, Fluid Interfaces, Object-Based Media, and Social Machines.
My hope is that our interns got a glimpse at the world of possibility when it comes to research and the Lab. This is a place with very few boundaries. You can play, explore, and learn without fear that you are doing something wrong.
There is little room for fear of failure at the Lab and I hope the interns were emboldened by that.
The Media Lab community had a lot to learn from the interns, too; this is a group of students with a vast range of life and research experiences. They each brought their own take to the work, seeing it through a new and unique lens. Not to mention, this was a great mentoring and learning opportunity for the graduate students and postdocs that supervise the interns.
Read on to hear from our six interns on their work and experiences here at the Lab this summer.
Digibody: An online prosthesis resource
Claudine Humure and Elizabeth Gallardo, Biomechatronics group
Digibody is an online, cloud-based learning tool that will help the prosthesis community interact more with each other. Digibody lives in Autodesk’s A360 cloud platform. It can be accessed by anyone with an Autodesk account (which is free to sign up for). The point is to improve global health by providing access to data no matter who or where you are. Members will have access to digital representations of prosthesis models. Moreover, the community will provide feedback on how to leverage CAD/ CAM tools to develop these models.
Digibody is a space where the most recent advancements of the field will be shared digitally. Users will learn how to use different digital tools to develop prostheses. For now, we have provided projects concerning the use of 123d Catch, Memento, and Fusion360. With these software tools you can create 3D renderings of a residual limb from photos taken from a phone and then cast a digital mold and modify it. Other groups have been using these approaches already; what’s unique about Digibody is that we are facilitating the exchange of information. As of now, there are limited resources that allow you to do this.
The Biomechatronics group provided a great environment to work in. Our mentors, David Hill, Bryan Ranger, and David Sengeh, always encouraged us to think creatively for the project and when we came up with seemingly silly ideas they encouraged us to think deeper to get them to work. The group has a lot of undergrads that were all working on different projects and willing to help each other. Apart from getting work done, we engaged in many fun conversations and lunch outings. The grad students were a pleasure to work with. They all were very enthusiastic to help and answer our questions. Tyler Clites, in particular, provided us with some informal learning sessions, where he dedicated a couple of hours to give us a run-through of the different hot topics in the lab. This was really enjoyable. We weren’t expecing to have a group of people this fun to be around. It was a great experience.
The Media Lab has to be one of the coolest places to work in. The building itself attests to the goal of collaboration amongst each other. The people working here made us feel like part of the community since day one (thanks to the amazing MAS crew).
The advantage of working in the Media Lab is that although the Biomech group is engineering-oriented, creativity is just as important and the unique groups here can get you to think outside the box.
So overall, being part of the Media Lab augmented the MSRP experience. We got something over and above the MSRP experience: we had another support group that was keeping up with us and making sure we were being productive and having fun all at the same time; we were given the chance to present our projects in the third-floor atrium over a fancy lunch to the whole Lab community; and we were allowed to wander into different labs and ask for mini tours, which made us feel very at home.
Pedro Colon-Hernandez, Object-Based Media group
My project was to work on improving the Narratarium. The Narratarium is a full-room, 360-degree projection system that uses speech processing to pick up keywords or concepts and change what’s being projected accordingly. In essence you can tell a story and the Narratarium will bring it to life all around you. My project consisted of porting the existing Narratarium software into Android, because the hardware setup was being upgraded to use a single projector instead of two. To achieve this port, I used Unity 5, because it was a multiplatform tool that would allow me to deploy an application in more than one environment with similar behavior. Although it is multiplatform, for this iteration we decided to target only Android and use Google’s speech recognition API. The port was a success and we were able to deploy the new system with some simple functionality. Next I focused on implementing a fun storyboard to serve as an excellent demo for the project.
This project served as a great learning experience, as I got to use Unity 5 and work with Android, and it has been a great experience working with the Object-Based Media group, where if I had any doubts I could just ask around and people are willing to help.
I expected possibly to be given a project and just work on it without any interaction, but the group proved to be very open with communication and very helpful with whatever I needed.
Also the group meetings/lunches turned out to be a blast because I could see what everyone was working on and some cool topics popped up. The Media Lab is a great place to bring ideas to life. It’s an environment that fosters creativity and ingenuity in everyone who works there.
What Makes People Influential? Extending the diffusion of microfinance
Hayley Hinsberger, Laboratory for Social Machines
This summer I extended a study done by MIT’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), in alignment with head of Social Machines Deb Roy’s ongoing project on improving literacy and learning in rural India. The study was trying to figure out how to spread information about microfinance through several villages in Karnataka, India, and they found that if you want to spread information through a village, your “injection points” have to be really central people. They came up with their own centrality measure for that, and we wanted to see if we could make their measure better and/or easier to calculate.
When I first got to Social Machines I sat down with my supervisors, Martin Saveski and Neo Mohsenvand, and we spent a long time brainstorming what we could do to make the paper better. We kind of pooled our knowledge and the project grew out of that.
Working with Social Machines was different from what I anticipated. For one thing, I thought my project was going to be about Twitter because I knew that LSM had a big grant from Twitter, so when I found out that my project had to do with microfinance in India, I was a little surprised! And network science is pretty new to me, so I was definitely out of my comfort zone for a while. But everyone in the lab was really helpful and encouraging through the whole summer. I was so sad to leave them; they’re definitely some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.
On my first day at the Media Lab I was talking to a labmate about an idea I had and he said, “Okay! Go write the code, try it out!” Which was a shock to me.
My usual approach at the time was to perfect an idea in my head, maybe run it by my professor first, and then try to write it. It’s a very timid approach to coding. So learning to just try stuff, and perfect it later, has been incredibly valuable.
Development of Time Tracking Platforms
Randi Williams, Fluid Interfaces group
This summer I developed two apps for helping people manage their time by making goals and tracking their time. My motives for this project were somewhat selfish: keeping track of time is a big problem for me. I started by exploring work that had already been done and determined what I wanted to change, and then grew the idea as I shared it with others. Then the project really began to take shape. My apps track the amount of time spent at home, at work, being physically active, sleeping, and commuting. I took all of this data and shaped it into different graphs and displays so that the user could visualize their data in different ways and then compare it to their goals for themselves.
The Lab and Fluid Interfaces are so awesome; there’s really nothing like them. I expected to work in a research lab, but I was working in a research lab/think tank/start-up incubator.
The Lab has a unique balance between research and industry. In Fluid Interfaces we answer the question: what can we do that is totally impossible and also meaningful? Then, how can we share it with others?
I was surprised by the intersection between art and technology. I’m not just an engineer, I’m also a musician, and a literature lover, and a designer, and the Lab environment encouraged me to use all of my skills and interests. Being surrounded by a group of people with busy minds and busy hands was been incredible. I am grateful for the experience and I can’t wait to come back!
Mapping Online Journalism with a Continuous Data Pipeline
Ziv Epstein, Laboratory for Social Machines
My project was building a data ingest for Social Machines’ Journalism Mapping and Analytics (JMAP) project, which aims to map and understand online journalism as a whole. This works by crawling the top US news sources and storing all the content they generate continuously, then applying network analysis and algorithmic inference to understand this vast corpus of articles. This summer, I wrote 15 web scrapers which crawl, parse, and extract key information from the websites and stores it in a database. I also built an exploratory visualization tool to “bring this data to life” using d3.js and flask. I chose this project because I was excited by the technical challenges it offered and the new frameworks and platforms I would have to learn in order to implement it. In addition, I’m highly interested in media, how ideas and content propagate across the Internet, and the application of robust quantitative methods to answer these previously qualitative questions.
Social Machines is truly a unique place. Its relationship to Twitter gives it a Silicon Valley start-up-y feel. I was constantly impressed with the members of the group in their keen eye for detail (demonstrated by their technical prowess) but also their ability to think about the big picture in considering systems of people and ideas.
Having only experienced research in the classical academic sense, the Media Lab and its philosophy has showed me a new way to building, thinking, and communicating.
At the Lab, people don’t care about disciplines or publishing for publishing’s sake. Here, people are futurists: designing and crafting the technologies and ideas that will change the world of tomorrow. This is demonstrated by everyone’s contagious passion, diverse interests and a physical lab space that oozes creativity.
Monica Orta is the Media Lab’s assistant director for diversity and inclusion. For more information about the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, please visit http://www.media.mit.edu/admissions/program-overview. For more about MSRP, please visit http://odge.mit.edu/undergraduate/msrp/.